Live Stories Change Lives – A Storytelling Showcase: Tracey Segarra, Corey Rosen, Dana Merwin, and Meg Ferrill at ComNet18
Tracey Segarra, Host/Producer of “Now You’re Talking!” A Storytelling Show, Corey Rosen, Writer/Marketing Executive at the Tippett Studio, Dana Merwin, Program Officer at the International Documentary Association, and Meg Ferrill share intimate, hilarious, and heartbreaking personal stories that will leave you in tears and lift you up with joy.
Tracey Segarra: Thank you guys all for coming. I know this has been crazy. You had to change venues and places. Storytellers love theater so we’re all glad to be here in a theater and we like to talk in front of microphones and not podiums. I’ve been – this is my first ComNet so this is – I’ve been hearing a lot about storytelling and as you all know I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. Stories are the building blocks of communication. The power of stories is the people, stories have that human element and show vulnerability, and people are much more likely to do what you want them to do when they feel a connection with you, and the best way to make connections is through stories.
What we’re going to do this afternoon is we have four storytellers including me – I’ll tell one at the end – and they will tell you different personal stories, each of them have different moments but what you’re going to find about all of them is that they each have, and I know this sounds elementary, but they each have a beginning, a middle, and an end. And what they have that’s also uncommon is that they are one person at the beginning of the story, something happens, there are some stakes in the story, and then there’s somebody else. They’re somehow different, they’re somehow changed, there’s an “a-ha” moment at the end of the story.
What I want you to do is to listen to stories just because they’re wonderful stories, I’ve heard them all so I know that, I can attest, but also to think about the questions you’d like to ask the storytellers. We’ll have a little Q&A after everybody tells their stories about how they crafted their stories for effect and for impact, what they kept in, what they took out and to see how that you can utilize story… I know a lot of you are already utilizing storytelling for your companies and for your nonprofits and foundations, but maybe you’ll be able to hopefully find new ways, new avenues to incorporate personal stories into what you do.
That being said, I’m going to call up our first storyteller. Everybody here is from the San Francisco area although Meg was originally from New York, thereabouts. All right, our first storyteller is Meg Ferrill.
Meg Ferrill: It was Friday afternoon and I was at work when I got an email from my wife. It was empty except the subject line, which just said, “These bitches are stealing our sperm, buy it all now.” The thing is I am not an impulsive person. It took me five years to ask my wife to marry me. It took me five years because I’m the kind of person that believes I can create a perfect moment whereas my wife, she’s the kind of person that just rides any moment out like it’s a wave. I knew when she said “these bitches are stealing our sperm, buy it all now,” that it was a call to action. It was a modern-day Paul Revere warning and the British were these bitches and they were coming for our sperm and I needed to buy it.
The thing is guys, I’d never really wanted kids. When I was little my mom said to me once, “I’m going to love you even if you’re a serial killer on death row from having killed someone.” That is some really hardcore, unconditional love. I’m never going to love anyone that much except for maybe myself because I’m like a little bit vain. We hadn’t gone into this with the purpose of baby-making. Sure, we talked casually about babies like how we talk casually about going to Greece or how we talked casually about taking the dog to the groomer, neither of which we’ve done you all, neither.
In fact, prior to this, my only baby-making experience was when me and my sister went to get our cabbage patch dolls, and she chose a brown hair brown eyed little girl very much like her and I chose half human, half cat. I’m just not made out for this. I’m not even a nurturer. I don’t even like to be touched. When I see someone approaching for a hug, I can feel my bones brace for impact. But most of all, I just didn’t want to be like my dad. Someone who is content with a title but wouldn’t dig for a real relationship, someone that could go 5 or 10 years without talking to their kid. That ability that he has to distance himself from anyone and everything, I have that too.
But then you all, my wife said she found a deal. There is nothing I love more than a deal. $50 for three months of unlimited access to all the sperm bank donor profiles. We’re talking medical records, written responses, audio interviews, baby pictures, I mean, ironically I was about to know more about these donors than I knew about my wife. At first it was just fun, it was like people watching on steroids. I remember listening intently to one audio interview where the donors was asked what his best trait was and he said, “My best trait is that I’m genius.”
That is just not how geniuses talk. But I was hooked I could not stop looking. It was like watching people pick their nose in public, like no matter how much you don’t want to look, you can’t stop looking. After countless profiles and making a decision and then changing it and making decisions and changing it, I finally found him, our donor. Just to put it really simply, he was just someone you want more of in this world. Now, there was an actual email demanding actual action, buy them all now. How much is all I wrote back because I know that our insurance doesn’t consider us infertile, we just can’t make a baby. Now, some babies, they’re only going to cost you like five shots of tequila and maybe an STD. But babies of love and science, they can really add up. On top of sperm, there’s IUI insemination. That will run you like 300 to 500 a pop. It only gives you a 10% to 20% chance of pregnancy.
Sure, there’s IVF, which will get you up to 30% to 40% chance but it’ll cost you 13k to 15k grand a go, and then there’s medical visits, there’s fertility drugs, there’s surrogates, I mean this is a very planned pregnancy. Tequila doesn’t even come into play until you see your credit card bill.
I asked her how much is all, I wrote back. She wrote back 10 vials. Ten vials at $700 a pop, I could buy you a man for that much money. There I sat with my cursor hovering over virtual cart filled with a modest amount of virtual sperm. Part of me was thinking, if B of A’s going to freeze my credit card for suspicious activity and I’m going to have to explain to Kevin in South Dakota that sperm was indeed one of my last three purchases. Gas, burrito, and yes Kevin, a couple of grand of sperm. But most of me knew that I was just really scared, like I’ve been in all the big moments in my life, like when I asked my wife to marry me. Big moments mean big change. I also knew that the only thing I’ve ever regretted about those moments was not doing them sooner.
Guys, this is not what pregnancy looks like. This is what beer looks like. My wife carried and our son is now three years old. Three months ago we welcomed our second son. Parenting is just so hard. I’m sure a lot of you guys know that, but every day I feel like I’m just doggy paddling to keep my head above water. Each day brings some new challenge and once I master that challenge, a new one appears, and I feel like I will very much always be the grasshopper, never quite the sensei. If we’re being honest, I thought I would be better just because they existed. I thought I’d be a great parent. I’m okay, I’m not great. I talk too loud, my touch is abrasive and patience is really something that I don’t seem to have.
The one thing I do know is that we have the number one ingredient you need to have a happy kid, a dog and love, lots of love, because I know I can say without a doubt that I’m going to love them even if they’re serial killers on death row for having killed someone. Thank you, guys.
Tracey Segarra: Okay, that was Meg Ferrill. Yeah, if my kids were serial killers on death row, I would love them too. You know, it’s the surprises in the story, the things you don’t expect people to say that really make them powerful. Once again give it up for Meg Ferrill. I’ll just tell you a little bit about Meg. It’s in the app but I’ll read it anyway. Meg is a Bay Area-based storyteller and comedian. She’s an instructor and main stage performer for The Moth. She’s a five-time winner of The Moth Story Slam and a two-time winner of The Moth Grand Slam.
How many of you have listened to The Moth Radio Hour or The Starter? All right. I had a feeling that this crowd would. A lot of us came to storytelling because we started listening to The Moth. Our next storyteller also has some Moth in his background. Please welcome, Corey Rosen.
Corey Rosen: Hi! A week before the last day of school this year I got punched in the face by a mother at our school, dropping my kids off at school. My kids and I have our routine that we do every day. My daughter’s 10, she’s in fourth grade. My son is 12, he goes to the middle school about three blocks away from where the elementary school is here in San Francisco. One day, my daughter asked me how long does it take to get to school in the morning. I said why don’t you write down the time, and so this started about three years ago, she started keeping a log, a log of exactly what time we started and got to school every day. Over the three years, this log has expanded. It’s gotten more detailed. There’s been additional things added to the log, such as an M or D column, mom or dad who drove to school.
An HRN column for who sat in the front seat for fairness, as well as a notes column for anything special or out of the ordinary that happened along the way to school that might’ve maybe affected the journey. My daughter is very stem, you might have gathered. She … in logs, for example, this one corner that we call “Dad/Son” corner where we see from time to time, a father/son waiting for their bus. We got actually really excited when we see dad’s on corner because we don’t see them all that often, but they’re a staple. They’re like a pillar along our journey.
There was also special events, a time that I left my bagel on top of the garbage can and had to come back for my bagel. A time that Henry got a nosebleed and a time that my car broke down and we had to call Mom to come back and pick us up and that threw off the average. These are just special events.
On this particular day, we left the house a little later than our average 7:19 to 7:22 time, at exactly 7:28. I know because it is so noted in the log and we were on our way to Rooftop Elementary, which is the name of our school. Rooftop, for those of you who don’t live in San Francisco, is in the Twin Peaks neighborhood near where that big Sutro Tower is on the western side of the city. It’s a lovely… it’s one of the highest elevations in San Francisco and it’s actually the geographic center of San Francisco, right outside the school.
The school is a in a lovely kind of residential neighborhood so the final approach to the school is a little 2-lane winding road where you approach the final school. At precisely 7:42AM, I know because of the log, an unusual situation occurred. As we’re driving, as I mentioned, this little two-lane narrow road, a vehicle was stopped on the right hand shoulder of the road and a guy was standing right next to the car. I sense that he was either going to get into his car or he was going to cross the street and so I did the sensible thing. I stopped and waited to see what was happening so I didn’t hit a guy on the way to school.
There was a vehicle behind me that clearly did not see why I was stopping. They thought… in San Francisco maybe where you come from, there’s this thing called Uber. Cars just stop wherever the hell they want and they probably thought I was doing that and just stopping but I wasn’t. I was being, I thought, sensible and safe and yet the driver, the motors behind me leaned on their horn and like “Meeh!” like the punishing, angry, beeping honk. I’m not going to get bullied by this.
At this time, I am going to just do the thing, make sure that everything’s cool and at the moment that I sense that everything was cool, I proceed to gently roll forward, at which point the driver behind me continues the assault. I got to say, I don’t deal well with road rage, with road ragers in general. When I sense that somebody is either driving closer or getting angrier, I flip it and I go the other way. I will go slower or more deliberate that kind of thing. It’s just my way, it’s like part safety, part being a dick, I don’t know. It’s being… that’s what I do. That’s the place that I go and it clearly is not what the person behind me has in mind who continues this assault. It’s at this point that I pull out the move.
I definitely can take no credit for the move. I didn’t invent the move. Maybe some of you do the move or are familiar with it. The move is of course where you step on the break really fast and so you stop the car as opposed to going forward, at which point it makes the person behind also have to step on their brakes and stop as well. It’s not kind but it usually conveys the point which is “get off.” In the cases when it works the best, the car behind stops the tailgating and you merrily going your way.
Well, this did not have that effect. The crescendo of bile and fury and anger and beeping and now cursing, I can hear through the closed windows of my car. I can hear the anger behind me at which point she tries to do something really unsafe, which is to overtake me and to pass me on, as I mentioned, a very narrow two-lane residential road two blocks from an elementary school. As I sense this is happening, that’s when I did the second move, which is the one that I’m not as proud of, maybe some of you have guessed already, I sped up. I sped up. I stepped on the gas as she’s trying to get around me and now I’m going fast enough so that 10 seconds later as I pull up to the drop off line of all the cars waiting to drop their kids off, she is landlocked next to me in the oncoming traffic lane with nowhere to go. She was screaming at me.
This is normally, at least in my experience with road rage situations, where the fight ends. Well, after middle fingers and some colorful language is exchanged, but this is generally where everybody feels like they were in the right, the other person was wrong and they go on their different ways. That is not the situation here.
I pulled my orange mini Cooper over the side of the road. I have to get out of the car to let my daughter, Noli, out of the car. I give her a hug and she starts to make her way to school when I see walking up the middle of the street, a woman. She is coming right at me and she has got fire in her eyes and she is looking for a fight, looking for the argument, satisfaction.
I get back in my car and I opened up my window and let me maybe paint the picture a little bit for you. We’re right across the street from where the school is. I am wearing a bow tie because I’m on my way to jury duty that day and I like to look a little weird at jury duty, because I do. My son is sitting next to me in the car and around us are all the other parents, principals, buses, children all on their way to school, which by the way, we are not late for. It is, 7:50 is the time that the first bell rings so we were early.
But I opened up the window and she comes up and she’s screaming at me. “You were dangerous,” she yells at me. “You almost made me crash into you”. At which point, I took a deep breath and I said, “I think maybe you want to take a deep breath. It sounds like you have a little road rage.” I have a wife who told me that was not the right thing to say in this situation. If you have an angry person confronting you, apparently, the thing never to say is, “You should calm down, ma’am.” That had the negative effect than I guess it would’ve.
At this point I try to take in the situation and I say, “Ma’am, my son is in the car”, and she goes, “I have kids in my car too and you made us almost crash into you,” at which point I sense that this situation was getting worse and not better. While there is this thing called the alien brain, the fight or flight, or freeze instinct. I am all about the flight, I realize about myself. I’m all about runaway and so as I reach for the toggle to bring the window up is where I feel the fist hit me in the side of my jaw.
I did see it so I did a little lean but still, sure enough, the shock of a parent punching me in the face was enough for me to say a full on, like, “Goodbye and I’m out of here.” I pull out and I drive away to go the next three blocks up the road to take my son to school. I realize that this sounds kind of one-sided. A lot of the story likes my perspective of this. By the way, I was not selected for jury duty, the bow tie trick does work. The take away that I have from this situation is interesting to me, which is that there was no contact between me and the woman after she she hit me and after altercation. There’s been no actual repercussions, but this is not a story for me about crime and punishment. This is not about something wrong happening to me. It’s actually a story about bubbles, about the bubble that I live in, about my city, about my family and about myself. About the fact that I have these rituals that have actually cut me off from the community and the city that I live in.
I drive with my family in our little bubble and we pass, as we go through San Francisco and we go on our little routines in our little way passed other bubbles, passed dads some corners all over San Francisco, and we have cut ourselves off in our smug, small way. This incident, this encounter was me being smug and small, was me being rude, was me driving unsafely and me antagonizing somebody who clearly was having a far worse day than I was. In fact, it was not her but my city that I felt punching me in the face, that in fact I got my bubble popped that morning and it made me relook at myself and the decisions that I make and how I make them.
I helped my daughter the night before the last day of school make her log. She takes her journal, her day of, or her year of data, and I help her put into Google sheets and make a graph and map it all out. I was happy and delighted to find that May 27, “Dad punched in face”, will live forever in my daughter’s journal and memory. Thank you.
Tracey Segarra: That was Corey Rosen. Tell you a little bit about Corey other than that he has been tended to road rage. Corey is a company member of the Bats Improv and host of the Berkeley Moth Stories Slam. Corey’s been featured on Back Fence PDX, Alice radio, and the Moth Radio Hour. By day, he’s a writer and marketing executive for Tippet Studio where he recently completed writing the screenplay for a Chinese theme park attraction. Ask him about that afterwards. For more information visit coreyrosen.com. Okay, our next storyteller coming up is Dana Merwin.
Dana Merwin: Yeah, that feels right. Hey, how are you all? Good, good. This is really exciting, by the way, just to be in this theater, so thank you again for having me. My name is Dana. It was a hot, humid day in Villa Rica, Georgia when I lost Burt Reynolds Rolex. That Burt Reynolds, the actor, he passed away last month, but not before leaving us with such classics as Deliverance, Smokey and the Bandit and in Boogie Nights. If you still don’t know who he is, he was one of the biggest movie stars in the 80s. Today, it would be like if Matthew McConaughey and Ryan Gosling had a baby but with a mustache. He had that charisma that campy charm. I grew up watching his movies.
I’m from Georgia, he’s from Georgia and in the South, he’s kind of a god. He’s movie Jesus. It was a big deal, when I was in my 20s and I was working on one of his movies back in Georgia, he was in his 70s. He was only there for one day, it was a small part, so we all stood in line to get our pictures taken with him. I thought that was going to be my souvenir, until the next day.
I was working on set and the prop guy came up to me and he said, “Hey Dana, can you do me a favor? I forgot to give Burt his watch back.” I was like, “Sure, of course.” He pulls out this Ziploc bag and inside the Ziploc bag is no ordinary watch, no. It is like this heavy gold diamond and encrusted Rolex. I had never seen a Rolex up close. I didn’t know much about them except Rolex is like the Rolex of watches and it probably cost more than I would make that month. I took it and I put it in my backpack.
At that point, I should have taken it to anyone, producer or director anyone but me should have had that watch at that point. Instead, I went to go see my parents because on top of everything they were on set that day. They’d driven up from my hometown of Adel, Georgia. They were going to be extras in one of the scenes that day. Extras are the people you see in the movie who are usually in the background, they’re not supposed to be talking, which is a challenge for my parents.
I was like, “Oh, they’re going to be mini movie stars and they get to see me in action.” I had wanted to make movies since I was a kid. They knew this. That was the part they expected. A little bit of back story. I was raised super Christian. That meant I was in church from the day I was born until the day I left, usually three times a week. If you’re watching Jeopardy with me and that Bible category comes on, just put your clicker down because I’m going to own it.
If I wasn’t in church, the other place that I was during my childhood was the movie theater. By the age of 10, I could recite both John 3:16 and Tim Burton’s Batman with equal enthusiasm. My parents knew that my love affair with film was probably going to compete with JC. That didn’t surprise them as much. The harder part wasn’t moving to Los Angeles, which is what I did after college. The harder part for them was when I moved in with my boyfriend, because as you see that’s called living in sin. They take that very seriously, not only my parents but my relatives. They didn’t hesitate to actually tell me that because of this everything that I would do would be damned.
Damn! That’s heavy. I don’t know if you remember, when you left home for the first time to pursue your hopes and dreams but just like all the things you screwed up along the way was like enough. But to think that maybe it was because you’re on this D list that your parents were telling you, it was stressful. There I was in Los Angeles and I was pretty much alone. This relationship that was so sinful was actually really supportive and good. If LA was hell, it felt pretty right. I was learning this craft that I only dreamed about as a kid. I was meeting actors and storytellers and writers and comedians and it was really hard, a lot.
A lot of my early jobs was just driving around this enormous city and feeling sometimes very alone. When you’re driving around that city it gives you time to think. You think about why you’re there and is it worth leaving everything you knew? Is there a God? If I sneeze will I cause an accident? These are really important things you think about when you’re starting out.
Unpacking all of that was where I was. I’d come back to Georgia to work on this movie so it was this mini-homecoming. It’s a way of saying like, “I left home to do this thing and this is what it looks like and this is what really excites me.” I went to go check on them. They rent an auditorium, not this majestic. They were eating like some crackers and drinking some Coke. I checked in on them and they were good, and they were good, so I got to go.
I went off again with my backpack and I was running errands and it was really hot. If you’ve never been to Georgia in the summer, it’s like being in a sauna with all your clothes on for 10 hours. I was a little tired and I looked around I was like, “I’m going to take this backpack off for just like a second. This is really hot and sweaty.” I turned to the sound guy and I was like, “Hey, do you mind if I leave my backpack here?” He was like, “Yeah, no problem” I was like, “be back in a minute.”
One minute led to 10 and 10 led to 20, and an hour later I came back and it was gone. Not only was my backpack gone, the sound guy was gone. In fact, all of the crew had moved to an entirely new building for a new scene. I frantically went there, I found the sound guy I was like, “Where’s my backpack?” He shrugs. That shrug set off this panic attack. I’m looking all around, there’s nothing but cables and gear and carts. I looked for an hour I can’t find it. There are other production assistants and I’m like, “I’m going to have to tell somebody. I can’t do this on my own.”
I tell them and they’re frantically looking and we’ve been looking for what seemed like hours. I go check in with my parents. I walk in, and I don’t know, it doesn’t seem to matter how old you are. Your parents can tell when there’s something wrong and they said, “What’s the matter?” I had to say what no kid wants to tell their parents. “Mom, Dad, I lost Burt Reynolds’ Rolex.” My mom said without hesitation what she has said when they face any problem in their lives. She said, “Let’s pray.”
Instinctually, I bowed my head. I don’t know if God’s ever heard a prayer to help find a movie star’s watch, but they’ve never heard a prayer as sweet and as sincere as my mom is that day. Then she said amen and my dad said amen and I maybe said amen. What I felt was that calm that comes with your parents telling you it’s going to be okay. I would realize years from now that I knew their language. I knew that language and what they were trying to tell me that they were scared that their daughter was moving away and this was their way of saying it. I knew their language, but what was happening when I moved away is that I was hearing something new that I’d never heard before if I had stayed there.
That little voice which was just starting that day was my voice. My head was still pretty down when I walked out of that auditorium but then I turned to my left and I kid you not. On a park bench, under these two massive lights was the book bag and inside it was the watch. I was just doing biggest dance and I told them and I told everyone. By the end of the shoot, people were calling me Rolex. It was fun because that day my career didn’t end and my relationship didn’t end with my parents. I don’t know. Was it the power of prayer? Was it the power of parents? Or does God love Burt Reynolds as much as we do? Thank you so much, thank you. Everybody, Tracey. Uh oh! I’m going to turn off, Tracey everybody, yay!
Tracey Segarra: Dana Merwin. I miss Burt Reynolds. I remember the 80s. Dana Merwin was born and raised in the swamps of Georgia. She worked in film and television production in LA before moving to San Francisco to work for Al Jazeera America. She currently works as a program officer for the International Documentary Association. She’s performed at the Moth Grand Slam, San Francisco Sketchfest, Porch Light Storytelling Series and the Lyon Improv Festival. She studied at the Clown school of San Francisco, Dell’Arte International and Upright Citizens Brigade.
Okay. We just have one more story from me and then we are going to all come up here. You guys, hopefully you’ve been listening to the stories and you have questions about crafting the stories. We’ll do that in a minute.
After three miscarriages, I’m pregnant again, this time with twins. I want to be excited and happy about this, but all I am is terrified. Terrified that something’s going to go wrong. Thankfully, the pregnancy goes beautifully. I’m at the 32 week appointment and I go to my obstetrician. They’re taking my vital signs and he examines me and he says, “Tracey, I need you to go to the hospital right now.”
I look around, I’m like I feel fine, but I’ve got a haircut and a pedicure. He says, “Tracey, your blood pressure is dangerously high. You’re having contractions. I need you to go to the hospital now.” They must’ve called ahead because by the time I get to the hospital they’re like practically ripping my clothes off, they’re shooting me full of magnesium sulfate to stop the labor, giving me something else to make the blood pressure go down. I feel fine. It’s not until I see these two baby bracelets. They put these baby bracelets on my wrist, baby A and baby B, because if none of this works that means they’re going to have to do an emergency C-section. Right then, right there do I realize the seriousness of the situation and I start freaking out because it is much too soon for these babies to be born.
Thankfully, the drugs work. My blood pressure comes down, the contractions stop, but this whole episode earns me a full-time stay in the hospital for the duration of the pregnancy until it’s time for the babies to be born. I am so bored in the hospital that I just wait every day for the ladies with the craft carts to come around. I do every craft on that card. I do like I make a mosaic tile, it spells out Dad like for my husband. If you squint then you can see that it says that. I make this gorgeous painting of a horse and my obstetrician comes by one day and he looks at it and he goes, “Tracey, that’s incredible”, until I have to confess that it’s Paint by Numbers. But really good paint by numbers, like I put a lot of effort into it.
Anyway, the day finally arrives for the babies to be born. It has to be a C-section because baby B has her foot squarely under baby A’s head blocking the runway. As they wheel me into the operating room, all of a sudden I am once again terrified that something terrible is going to happen. But then I have this thought, and when I see my obstetrician I say, “This is elective surgery, right?” He says, “Yeah.” I say, “Can we elect to do this another day?” He just looks at me and he laughs and he says, “No, Tracey. It is time to meet your babies.”
After what seems like an eternity but it is probably only like 45 minutes or so, my daughters Lily Ann and Jessica Rose are born. When I hear their dueling banjo cries from the opposite sides of the room, “To do do do do do do, waaa.” I finally feel like, “Aah!” I can finally breathe and just be a mom.
The next day during routine tests they discover a murmur in Lily’s heart. Further tests show that she has a very serious congenital heart defect called tetralogy of flow and she’s going to need open heart surgery in the next few months in order to survive. Well, I’m in shock when they … this cardiologist I’ve never met starts telling me all the things that are wrong with my baby’s heart. Then, I’m terrified when they discuss the open heart surgery and what they’re going to have to do to fix it.
Then I’m angry at God mostly for giving me this broken baby. The next few weeks are a whirlwind of learning how to take care of infant twins, watching Lily like a hawk to make sure that she doesn’t turn blue, which means her blood pressure, her … what is it? Whatever it is, her blood oxygen level has dropped and that would mean I have to rush her to the hospital and interviewing heart surgeons. Now, I don’t know anybody less qualified than me to interview heart surgeons. I am liberal arts major all the way, science and I do not mix. I have no idea what’s going on beneath the skin in my body, but I know I need to do this for my baby. The first surgeon we meet tells us that he wants to use Kevlar to fix the hole. She has two holes in her heart. I know what Kevlar is. That’s what they use in bulletproof vests and I just shudder to think of them putting that in my tiny baby’s body.
The next surgeon we made is like Dr. Kildare like gorgeous and confident and arrogant, then he says, “Oh! There’s absolutely no reason that you have to do this surgery so soon. She’s in no distress right now. We can wait until she grows and her heart grows. You can wait, come back in a year. We can do the surgery then.” The third surgeon we meet is Dr. Q. and Dr. Q is this Belgian with these bushy eyebrows, 5’5″ but intimidating as hell. He has the bedside manner of Vladimir Putin on a good day, I’ll give him that. After like the first two questions, I can just tell he wants us out of his office. He just does not want to deal with us, but I know that this is my job, I have to find the right surgeon for my child, so we keep asking questions.
In the end, we decided to go with Dr. Q because the only question we’ve asked these doctors that really matters is how many of your babies don’t die and Dr. Q has the best stats. On the day of Lily’s surgery, she weighs 10 pounds. She is just five months old and her heart is roughly the size of a walnut. I think to myself, “How? How can they even operate on a heart that small?” But I have to put that thought out of my head because otherwise I would not be able to hand over my baby to this anesthesiologist who is standing there with outstretched arms to take my baby behind these huge steel doors into an operating room, so I do. When she disappears behind that door, I break down because I’m supposed to be there to protect her and this is the first time in her life that I can’t do anything.
We go upstairs and we wait in the waiting room and after a few hours Dr. Q comes out and he wheels her into the pediatric ICU and he tells us it went beautifully, she’s going to be fine. We never see Dr. Q again. That night there are complications. Her lungs have filled with fluid and she needs to be intubated and sedated until her lungs can clear. Every day we just sit vigil by her bedside and I ask the doctors every day, “Can you wake her up today?” Every day they say, “No, not today.”
Every evening, my husband sleeps by her bedside and I go back to my mother’s apartment where my other twin, Jessica is and take care of her and every morning I come back to the hospital. One morning I come back and I look at Fred and he says, “It was a bad night.” I frantically look over at Lily and he’s like, “No, Lily’s fine”, he said, “But during the night, one of the babies didn’t make it.” The parents weren’t there and it was pandemonium. It was the first time that I felt some relief because I knew even though she had complications, Lily was going to be okay.
The next day I asked the doctor, “Can you wake Lily up today?” He says, “Not today but maybe tomorrow.” The next day, finally, they can take out the tubes and I can hold her. The thing I want more than anything is to get that antiseptic, horrible hospital smell off of her so I wipe her down with baby wipes. I take the hospital gown off of her and I put her in her teddy bear onesie and hold her. I got to hold my baby and the feeling’s just indescribable.
After five more days, we finally get to take her home and I’m still so frightened. She’s got this Frankenstein scar practically running the length of her chest, and I can tell that she is still in some pain. Again, I watch her like a hawk. But about a week later, I go to pick her up from her crib and she turns to me and she gives me this crooked little Lily smile. It’s the first time that she smiled since the surgery. It’s only then that I know in my heart that she’s going to be okay.
Well, 13 years later, we get invited to a hospital gala honoring Dr. Q, and so we go the whole family. At one point during the evening, Lily and I go to seek Dr. Q out. We see him and she taps him on the shoulder and she says, “Dr. Q, my name’s Lily. When I was baby, you fixed my heart.” He’s just kind of the same, just like nodding. There is a hospital photographer there and he captures the moment he wants to take a picture, so Dr. Q dutifully puts his arm around Lily and they take a photo.
I remember leaving the event that evening and of course I’m grateful to him for what he did but I remember thinking how surgeons the ones we met they’re just so arrogant, they have no bedside manner. They just … I think to myself that they really must go into this for the for the intellectual challenge, not so much caring about their patients. A few weeks later, I come across this New York magazine article and it’s all about Dr. Q, it’s a profile on him so of course I read it. There is one paragraph in the article that really sticks out for me.
In that paragraph, he tells the reporter that in order to do what he does every day, he needs to keep a certain distance from the families. After I read it I go back and I look at that photo of Lily and Dr. Q. In the photo, now when I look at it, I see that not only is his arm wrapped around his shoulder but it’s wrapped around so tightly that one of her curls is wound around his finger. I think to myself, “You know, maybe we’re not so different, Dr. Q and I.” I’m a writer and when I write I block out everything, my family so I can focus. It doesn’t mean that I love them any less. Now, when I look at that photo of Lily and Dr. Q, I focus in on his hands because these are the hands that reached into my broken babies walnut sized heart and made it whole. Now here they are wrapped around my child and what may be just possibly is a hug. Thank you.
Okay. I’m going to ask all my fellow storytellers to come up and we’ve got some time for Q&A. I don’t know if we have a microphone in the audience but if anybody wants to ask us questions about our stories are about how we crafted them. Any questions?
Audience: I just want to hear just a little bit about each of your process, like if you start from an outline, how you build your stories.
Tracey Segarra: Let’s see if this is on. Okay, we can share this. Does anyone want to go first?
Meg Ferrill: I tend to write … I think you performers and you have writers who are storytellers. I tend to write out I’d say what you call like an outline. I’m also a standup comic so I focus a lot of my jokes probably too much sometimes, but sometimes it’s about getting the punch. I would I write like an outline but I still leave it very loose. Then once I get to a certain stage, I just run it over and over and over again and it organically shapes itself a bit.
Dana Merwin: Yeah, mine’s not too dissimilar than that. Just finding a story that I like to tell with friends or I found that I’ve ended up telling over drinks or at a party and I realize, “Oh! There’s something to that story.” I think my biggest thing is I stare at the computer too long and like even leading up to today I kept going back to the computer and then I just broke away and I stare at a wall and I’ll tell the story to the wall or the cat or whatever feels like an audience. Then, because I realize when I type, it’s not usually how I speak and so I have to break out of that because I think we have language that we’re used to reading versus how we actually talk. That’s been my process.
Corey Rosen: Sometimes there’s like a thing that happens to me and I’m like, “Is that a story or is that just like a thing that happens?” That’s where I sometimes like look at those things and I try to analyze like, what makes it a story? What’s the difference between an interesting thing that happened like somebody punch me in the face versus like what’s the story. The thing that makes it for me worth working on or developing or telling is do I see any bigger story beyond the thing. Is it about something else? Is it just that interesting anecdote that happened? Is it like, “Oh! This is something that reflects on my life, my family, my world”, something like that.
To me that’s part of … like my process is, is it something that I just would like this crazy thing happened to me today, or is it like, “Oh! I can actually look beyond it.” That I get from telling it to people. I’ll just tell it to someone and it’s either like, “Oh! That was a thing that happened.” Or it’s like, “Wow!’ and then they’ll ask more questions about it and then I start to look into what is it, what’s it really about?
Tracey Segarra: Yeah, it’s interesting. This story that I told today has gone through a lot of iterations. I originally told it at a Moth Story Slam, I think, like two years ago and had a very different ending because I don’t think I really understood the whole meaning of it. When I looked at the picture of Lily and Dr. Q and then I read the article it still took me a while and going over it with other people to figure out what it meant. For me, I really try when I craft my stories to see where that aha moment is. To me, the aha moment is really important in storytelling, because it helps me understand how it changed me. I think it’s that change that people really, when I tell the story … One of the first times I told the story when I told it with this ending, I told it at an event and I wrote about this in change agent and this woman came up to me afterwards and she had worked in the operating room with Dr. Q, not when my daughter was being operated on and she said to me, she said, “Thank you so much for telling that story because you gave me the perspective of the family that I never had before and it helped me, it will help me be a better doctor.”
To me, that’s what’s meaningful about this. I’m teaching a storytelling course right now to Molloy College in New York, which is primarily a nursing school and I said, “Imagine if this were a nurse telling the story. If this was her story, you could tell this about, you learned maybe … that you could say you learned in nursing. My story is about not prejudging people, not assuming you know something about them and not having that prejudice and so I’m sure that you did learn in nursing school that you have to take everything to account and not prejudge, so it could be a kind of story that could be used as an alumni story. Yes.
Audience: How much critical feedback do you seek?
Dana Merwin: I am super hard on myself and it’s interesting. I will tell this story to different people, especially the ending. I like knowing my first line and my last line and it’s funny tonight. I definitely added some things I didn’t intend to. My partner said, “You know you can get notes. You don’t have to take them all.” Even his note, I was like, “I’ll, maybe will take that.”
Yeah, I enjoy feedback. I think if a note is consistently coming up and then I think it’s worth addressing. If someone’s confused especially I listen to those notes, but if someone tells me they don’t think that lines funny, I don’t care if it makes me laugh.
Meg Ferrill: Yeah. I’d say the best thing that someone ever told me was listen to it all but only take to heart what’s true to you. If it doesn’t, you’ll get a lot of people that’ll give you edits and you’ll just be like, “That’s not what happened”, or, “That’s not me”, or, “That’s not right for the story. That’s not the point I’m trying to tell.” I think you’re the filter there to make sure it’s true to you because an audience knows when it’s not really true to you, and it’s painful to be on stage and have a moment like that. I think that’s for me how I do it.
Corey Rosen: I’m in improviser so I’m very, yes, handy in the world of giving and receiving feedback. I’m very open to hearing ideas. The thing that I … the learning that I had that I think has been the most profound in terms of applying feedback that I get and I work on it with myself and also in groups that I work with is aikido. If any of you are familiar with the martial art of aikido, it’s essentially a martial art in terms of the practice to protect yourself but also to protect your opponent. I’ll apply it in this way.
When someone’s giving you feedback there’s three ways that you could respond. One is to shut them out and to close your ears and you just protect yourself like, “Nananana, I don’t want to hear it”, just put your wall up, and you feel like, “Yeah, I did it. I didn’t have to hear their feedback and I’m fine. But what’s the matter with my story? I still can’t figure out my story?”
The second thing people do is they’ll fight back any time they give you feedback. They’ll tell you, “Well, that wouldn’t work because I thought about that and that’s a bad idea.” Then you find, if you fight enough people on their criticism or their ideas they’ll just stop giving you ideas because they don’t want to be yelled that. The better way that I try to apply criticism or critique or ideas is to try them, to yes an idea like, “Well, what would happen if I try that?” You just take it for a walk to experiment with, “what if I tried that”, and maybe it doesn’t go anywhere but if it does then it’s helped me to move my story forward.
Tracey Segarra: I think most people, I hate criticism, nobody wants to be criticized. What I’ve learned is that people who really understand stories can help. They’ve made my stories immeasurably better. Sometimes there’s something that you know about yourself or you know about your own story that is not as obvious to your audience. I just told the story about becoming a pool hustler when I was 13 down at my grandparents retirement community and I talked about coming back like nine years later and this old man who taught me how to play pool and I say, “Oh, he didn’t recognize me.” In my mind, he didn’t recognize me because I changed so much, but everybody I told that story to thought he was senile and that’s why he didn’t recognize me. I had to change the story so nobody thought he was senile. Sometimes there are just little things.
I also find, I always tell my stories, I try to always tell my stories in front of smaller audiences first because you get the … there’s an energy that you get from an audience that helps your story be better. You see what works and what doesn’t. Like that other story, there was … my beginning didn’t work and I figured out a way to switch it around so it was funny in the beginning I got the laugh and then it worked and then it was able to flow. I think getting feedback is really helpful.
Audience: All your stories come from a really authentic place, they’re really from the heart. I’m wondering how much you pay attention to formal structure, middle beginning, beginning, middle and end, an arc or … Are these things just embedded in you? How does that work?
Meg Ferrill: I pay attention a lot because they are very important. I think it’s hard because when you’re working a story sometimes you’ll start and you’ll start so far from where you’re going to end. I think the good advice is start closer to your end. I think what you end up doing is it adapts as you work through it as you’re going to the process. You start moving the beginning, you move the end, you think, “Oh! Do I need to tell them this for them to know that or do they not need that at all?” It’s part of the editing process. I think the one thing I’ve learned is to be very fluid and not say like, “this is how the story goes, this is what makes sense”, but to just say like “Does it makes? Should I just start like 10 minutes before the ending and see what happens?”
I think you’ll push to a beginning, middle and end, but I think the hard part is a lot of people think “once upon a time”, “and they lived happily ever after”, and really there’s stories like every minute and they can be stretched as far or as short as you want. I think flexibility there is key.
Tracey Segarra: I think for me it’s important. This is what I learned from listening to them often and taking classes is, it’s important to establish stakes upfront. What do I have to gain or lose by the action that I’m telling in my story? In my story, you know right at the beginning that I’ve had two miscarriages, I’m pregnant again and I’m nervous about the outcome. Already, I’ve got the audience invested in my story. I think … they tell you a lot of times to start in on the action, to let people … grab people and then you can give them a little background after that, but you got to grab your audience. If you don’t grab them in the first sentence or two, you’re probably not going to.
I really do follow, the story has to have a beginning, a middle and an end. There has to be stakes. There is rising action, something happens, my daughter needs a heart operation, I need to find the right surgeon. Then the aha moment is usually near the end when I realize that Dr. Q and I are not so different, and then what did I learn from this? I learned from this, basically, the message is to not prejudge people and that I’m grateful.
Dana Merwin: I won’t add to that. I agree with all of that.
Corey Rosen: Yeah, me too.
Meg Ferrill: I’ll just add to go back to what Corey said. I think that if you have a story you don’t feel like there’s a beginning, middle, and end. You’re looking at something that isn’t really a story, it’s more of an anecdote and it’s maybe a part of the future story. I think that’s a good way to … one of the ways I gauge like is there enough here to tell a story? Is this part of a greater story?
Corey Rosen: Okay, I got one thing. If you’re not familiar with it, look up the Kenn Adams story spine. If you have like, “I have this thing and I think it’s a story but I’m not sure”, it’s basically a structure that you can try applying. Does my story have a beginning, middle, and end? Does something change? Is there an “ever since that day”? Is there a new world? Does the world change? Look it up and try to put your story into that. If it does, you’ve got a story.
Tracey Segarra: I think we have … it looks like we have a 1:17 left. Yes, right up front. Yes, right there. You’re waiting for your microphone, I get it.
Audience: Hi! I think that in my line of work, I tend to give other people’s stories rather my own story. Sometimes what is important to them is not what is important to me. How do we make that balance because my … what I think is the aha moment of their story sometimes is not their aha moment, because I’m a communicator. I’m trying to see what my audience wants. If somebody is giving you a story, how do we capture what is important to you?
Tracey Segarra: Good question.
Dana Merwin: For me, I have so many context questions I think because I think building off of being authentic. In these cases, these are our stories so I believe in someone telling their own story. I don’t know, I don’t feel qualified to … I don’t retell so I don’t feel qualified for that.
Tracey Segarra: I think honestly it’s best if the people you’re telling the stories about, if you can somehow get them to tell their stories even just three minutes, using this, beginning, middle and end, that’s going to be much more authentic than you telling somebody else’s story. I realize that’s not always possible, but if you can even just quote them in the story and tell the story as in say, when I talked to this person this is what they told me. Again, to bring yourself into it because I think that helps make it more authentic.
Dana Merwin: Telling it back to them is another way so that they can almost fact check you in maybe an emotional and factual way. Having them here, you tell their story back to them and gives them a chance to really have a say in it.
Corey Rosen: Can I just go one sec? You’re right on that. Sometimes when you have a story you don’t even know what your story is about. I could tell a story you and then my brother will be like, “You know your story is really”. Sometimes it’s actually helpful to be telling somebody else’s story because we as an outsider to it who not having lived it can recognize what the actual meaning of it is. It’s actually helpful if you are to work with your partner or your client or whoever that is to help them tell their story because as an outsider you have an insight that they don’t. We can be so close to it that we think the stories about this, but it’s not, it’s about something else.
Tracey Segarra: It’s saying 1:23 second.
Corey Rosen: That’s counting up now.
Audience: I was just going to ask. Can you repeat that resource, the story that resource that you said earlier?
Corey Rosen: Mine is called the Kenn Adams Story Spine. Kenn with two Ns. He’s a local Bay Area teacher, actor, improviser, writer and the story spine is used everywhere. Pixar uses it. It’s like a framework where it’s like the beginning, “once upon a time” and “everyday”, “until one day”, “because of that, because of that” till final. It’s like a framework that you can use diagnostically like to fix a story or you could use it creatively to write a story.
I do it with my kids. We tell stories like bedtime stories just using that. I’ll go, “once upon a time”, and my kid will fill it in. “Everyday”, and they’ll fill it in. If you’re stuck for a bedtime story, try that.
Tracey Segarra: The other resource is, Carmine Gallo is an author and a speaker and he has a book called Talk Like Ted. It’s about people in organizations telling and bringing your authentic self into telling the story of your organization and yourself. If anybody has any other questions we have to end here, but I’m sure all of us wouldn’t mind sticking around for a few minutes, we’d be happy to talk to you. Thank you for coming.